By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
July 04, 2021
The condemnations came fast and furious. U.S. actor Michael B. Jordan, it seems, was farse and outaplace to name his new rum J’Ouvert and equally outatiming to set the label of his product on a box that included “a schematic of the islands of Trinidad and Tobago, plus a written reference to Trinidad and to J’Ouvert as a local celebration of emancipation and carnival” (Newsday, June 21).
One Trini woman mused: “We look for that. This is what happens when we are constantly ambivalent about our culture, largely ignore its historical, spiritual and ideological significance” (Newsday, June 21).
Sinkglo Nafro, YouTube influencer, objected in stronger language: “It’s cultural appropriation because Michael B. Jordan is an African American man. He is not a Trinidadian man, he is not a West Indian man. The West Indian culture is not his culture, so why is he using J’ouvert? So [he] could have come up with so many different words that would celebrate the African American community” (Express, June 20).
Most of the people who condemned Jordan for naming his rum J’Ouvert acted as though Trinis have an exclusive right to that name. Justine Koo, intellectual property specialist at the University of the West Indies, pointed out: “In relation to the J’Ouvert rum trademark application, if that is granted all that it means is that in the context of the United States of America where the trademark was filed no one else can sell rum or any confusingly similar product under the name J’Ouvert” (Newsday, June 21).
Jordan was the font of generosity in the face of criticism. He responded: “I just wanna say on behalf of myself & my partners, our intention was never to offend or hurt a culture (we love & respect) & hoped to celebrate and shine a positive light on it. Last few days has been a lot of listening. A lot of learning and engaging in countless community conversations.
“We hear you. I hear you & want to be clear that we are in the process of renaming. We sincerely apologize & look forward to introducing a brand we can all be proud of.”
In retrospect, I couldn’t help but ask, who really won in this encounter or was ours simply a kneejerk response to a newfangled formulation (“cultural appropriation”) and colonialist politricks of inter-racial division? Could we not have used this opportunity to think of our society in a much more culturally critical manner and thereby promote/market our society abroad in a positive light?
An early description of the product read: “Derived from the Antillean Creole French term meaning ‘daybreak,’ J’OUVERT originated in the pre-dawn streets of Trinidad, as celebrations of emancipation combined with Carnival season to serve as the festival’s informal commencements. Crafted on those same islands, J’OUVERT Rum is a tribute to the ‘party start'” (Los Angeles Times, April 29).
This was a promising start. It recognized the Trinidad origin of the term and how it emerged. Given his interest, my internationalist perspective forced me to examine how best we could team up with Jordan to promote the cultural richness of our island.
Black Panther made Jordan an instant celebrity. It was a movie that every black person wanted to see. Some of my colleagues saw it as many as five times. The film sold more than 1 billion dollars in global ticket sales and was the highest grossing film for Marvel studios. Plans are afoot to make a Black Panther 2. Here was an opportunity for us to associate ourselves with the growing popularity of this movement.
While celebrities appropriate aspects of foreign cultures, all appropriations are not necessarily bad things. Taking Jordan at his word, we could have welcomed his choice of name and invited him to launch his product in T&T. We could have engaged in serious discussions with him about how he could promote our cultural products. Jerome Lewis, a dear friend, suggests: “This would have been the right time for us to display our talent and cultural identities. We could have promoted our Angostura brand of products, Peter Minshall’s Tan Tan & Saga Boy, and many of the other contributions that our multicultural society has given to the world.”
Meanwhile our economy continues to stagnate. The IMF estimated that our real GDP “contracted by 7.8 percent in 2020 and projects a moderate economic recovery of real GDP growth averaging about 2.2 percent over 2021-2025.” There will not be “any significant increase in energy output,” and the tourism sector, like most countries, will take some time to recover (IDB Quarterly Bulletin, May 2021).
Our problem is not how much we have but how we promote the interesting things that we do have. Interestingly, the Jamaica tourist sector earned over 1 billion dollars (US) in foreign exchange over the last six months. Jordan was offering something (his immense international image and prestige) that we cannot pay for. His association with us would have increased our tourist potential immensely.
For those who are always fond of saying nay, I wonder if it would have been better if we had said yea and see how we could have leveraged this wonderful opportunity and let the appropriation of this particular cultural item in our history work for us. Doesn’t innovation and critical thinking consist of taking advantage of possibilities that arise in the course of our daily lives?
All is not lost though. It might be a good gesture for Trade Minister Paula Gopee-Scoon, in her effort to promote T&T’s tourism, to invite Jordan to T&T, show him some of our cultural wonders, and ask how he can work with us to promote our twin islands to foreign visitors.